BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Lebanon’s army stepped up patrols on Tuesday as part of a drive to restore order after a week of fighting between Hezbollah fighters and pro-government gunmen.
Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Muslim movement backed by Iran and Syria, and its opposition allies have routed supporters of the Sunni-led government in Beirut and hills to the east in fighting that has pushed Lebanon to the brink of a new civil war.
Wary of fragmenting its own ranks, the army has stayed neutral in the conflict, which has killed 81 people, wounded 250 and raised Arab and international concern over Lebanon’s future.
Police said 62 dead had been registered, but sources said they recognised the actual figure was likely to be higher.
Overall, Lebanon was experiencing its calmest day since violence flared on May 7 after Prime Minister Fouad Siniora outlawed Hezbollah’s communications network and fired Beirut airport’s security chief, who is close to the Shi’ite group.
Hezbollah said this was a declaration of war and swiftly took over much of Beirut, crushing pro-government Sunni Muslim gunmen. It then handed over its gains to the army.
The army command announced on Monday night it would work to end all armed presence in cities and villages from 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) and authorised troops to use force if necessary.
It gave no further details but a security source said the army’s orders were to arrest gunmen on the streets, take over armed positions and seize suspected arms depots.
The initiative was not seen as a challenge to Hezbollah and may have been coordinated with the group, which perhaps has an interest in showing the army in control before Arab mediators arrive in Beirut on Wednesday, political analysts said.
Troops took over more positions held by Druze forces loyal to pro government leader Walid Jumblatt, whose mountain fiefdom east of Beirut was attacked by Hezbollah on Sunday. “The security situation in the mountain is stable after the army move,” said Akram Shuhayeb, a lawmaker and Jumblatt aide. But in the hill resort town of Aley, a grocer named Wassim Timani, who is loyal to Jumblatt, was not so sure.
“The army’s presence here is only for show. It won’t be able to do anything if the truce is violated,” he told Reuters. “We have shown it all respect but we will not hand over our guns.”
The army also expanded its presence in the northern city of Tripoli, where small-scale clashes continued overnight between Sunni gunmen and Alawites allied to Hezbollah.
Even if the army manages to halt all fighting, it has no plans to remove street barricades set up by the Hezbollah-led opposition to keep Beirut port and airport shut and ratchet up pressure on the government to bow to its political demands.
Hezbollah’s success so far has sapped the credibility of the Siniora government and its main patron, the United States, which has cast Lebanon as a fragile democracy endangered by the ambitions of Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian backers.
U.S. President George W. Bush said in a statement on Monday he would consult regional allies during his visit to the Middle East this week on ways to bolster Lebanon. “It is critical that the international community come together to assist the Lebanese people in their hour of need,” he said, adding that the United States would continue to aid the Lebanese military so it can defend the government.
No one in Lebanon believes the army has the ability or desire to tackle Hezbollah or to side decisively with the U.S.-backed government in a society whose Sunni, Shi’ite and Christian components are split evenly between the two sides.
Bush will travel to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, starting on Wednesday, and plans to meet Siniora in Egypt on Sunday.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the United States and its main European and Arab allies condemned the violence in Lebanon and urged all parties to end the fighting. “We remain deeply concerned by the situation in Lebanon, which threatens the stability of the country and the region,” the “Friends of Lebanon” said in a statement.
Western and Saudi support for the government has so far done nothing to deter Hezbollah from exposing the military weakness of its foes, such as Jumblatt and Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri.
The government has for 18 months resisted opposition demands for veto rights in cabinet, though Hezbollah has now shown it has the military muscle to block decisions it dislikes anyway.
The government moves to ban Hezbollah’s telephone network and sack the airport security chief are already a dead letter.
Political turmoil has left Lebanon without a president since November. Parliament speaker and opposition leader Nabih Berri has postponed until June 10 an assembly session called for Tuesday to elect a head of state. It was the 19th such delay.